November Initiatives Target Bilingual Education

Published May 1, 2002

Statewide ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and Colorado this November will seek to eliminate bilingual education programs and replace them with one-year English immersion plans.

Meanwhile, in California—which passed the first such law in 1998—the appointed state Board of Education in March abandoned its efforts to impose new regulations that would have stripped a key provision of Proposition 227, the bilingual reform law.

Mass. Legislature Holds Lively Reform Hearing

Facing increased pressure as a result of the pending referendum, the education committees of both houses of the Massachusetts Legislature held a hearing on March 13 to discuss three proposed alternatives. The first, from Republican Governor Jane Swift, would place a two-year limit on the amount of time students can spend in bilingual programs.

A second measure, proposed by State Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), amounts to little more than an endorsement of the current system with some improved accountability. A third, endorsed as a compromise measure by the chairmen of the two education committees, State Senator Robert Antonioni (D-Leominster) and State Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield), would set a three-year time limit as well as increase accountability.

“Right now, there isn’t any accountability,” said Larkin.

State Senator Guy W. Glodis (D-Worcester), one of the ballot initiative’s most prominent supporters, called the proposed compromise “nothing more than a bureaucratic machination intended as a rubber stamp of the status quo.” He added, “How can we possibly expect to help these students when we maintain a horribly failing system? In the absence of a more effective legislative proposal, we will let the people of the Commonwealth decide for themselves in November.” Republican whip Mary Rogeness (R-Longmeadow) discussed her support for the referendum on a local radio program.

The statehouse hearing lasted eight hours and featured a number of spirited exchanges. Lawmakers heard testimony from Ron Unz, author of the California law and a key leader in both the Massachusetts and Colorado movements, as well as bilingual education supporters, including state AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes.

John Silber, the chancellor of Boston University and former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, gave his forceful endorsement to the ballot initiative. “The present system … traps students in classes where they never develop fluency in English,” he said.

Colorado Campaign Gains Momentum

The proposed ballot initiative in Colorado also generated increased interest. A survey by the Denver Rocky Mountain News in February found 68 percent of voters favored the proposal, with only 26 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided.

Meanwhile, two former Denver School Board members announced their support for “English for the Children of Colorado” at a rally on the steps of the state capitol. The former members, Laura Lefkowits and Lynn Coleman, both pointed to failures in the state’s current bilingual programs.

Ballot language was approved for two different versions of the measure by the state title-setting board in December. Reform leaders are now waiting for an expected state supreme court ruling before collecting the signatures necessary to place the measure on the November ballot. An eleventh-hour ruling by that same court prevented a similar initiative from appearing on the 2000 ballot.

California School Board Backs Down

As these and other movements to bring meaningful reform of bilingual education move forward across the nation, the California school board recently announced it was considering drastic new regulations that would have gutted the 1998 bilingual reforms mandated by Proposition 227. Supporters of those reforms, led by Ron Unz, responded vigorously and threatened a lawsuit, prompting the board to drop the controversial proposals.

Proposition 227 explicitly provides for parental exceptions allowing English learners to remain in bilingual education—but only when a child’s parent makes such a request in person at the school. And even then, such waivers are permitted only in certain circumstances, namely for older or special-needs children, or for those who already possess above-average English language skills. The proposed regulations would have granted teachers and school officials the authority to grant such “parental exceptions” unilaterally.

“I am very glad the board now admits that their position last month was completely illegal and they have backtracked on that,” Unz told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

New Study Illuminates Value of California Reforms

The reforms set in motion by the 1998 California law are the focus of a new study by Boston University Professor Christine Rossell. Her paper, “Dismantling Bilingual Education, Implementing English Immersion: The California Initiative,” analyzes how California school districts have complied with Proposition 227, pointing to both troubling trends and reasons for optimism.

Prior to the law’s passage, the study notes, 40 percent of California’s English learners were enrolled in bilingual education. That number dropped sharply, to approximately 15 percent, in the 1998-99 school year that followed approval of Proposition 227, and it has remained relatively unchanged at that level. Rossell cites this as one significant reason for the widely reported gains in test scores for California’s English learners, which occurred after the law was passed.

The paper also notes that while only three-quarters of English learners were tested prior to the new law, that number rose to 84 percent in the 2000-01 school year. The law requires that all English learners be tested.

The strong gains made by California’s English learners in reading, math, and language skills have been widely reported for the third straight year following Proposition 227. The improvements have been most impressive among younger students, but the state’s lowest-performing English learners have also improved at a substantial rate.

Rossell reports numerous inconsistencies in how school districts have complied with the law. She describes some prominent cases, like San Francisco, where school districts simply defied it outright. The lack of compliance with the 1998 law documented in this study, particularly in the San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland school districts, remains a cause for serious concern.

Yet in light of what seems at times to be an outright lack of compliance in several of California’s major school districts, the widely reported gains by English learners statewide are even more impressive.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information…

“Dismantling Bilingual Education, Implementing English Immersion: The California Initiative,” written by Christine H. Rossell and issued by the Public Policy Institute of California on February 20, is available online at

Don Soifer’s January 2002 paper, “Bilingual Education: An Annual Report,” can be obtained free of charge by emailing [email protected].